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Common misconceptions of critical thinking


In this paper, the ® rst of two, we analyse three widely-held conceptions of critical
thinking: as one or more skills, as mental processes, and as sets of procedures. Each
view is, we contend, wrong-headed, misleading or, at best, unhelpful. Some who write
about critical thinking seem to muddle all three views in an unenlightening me lange.
Apart from the errors or inadequacies of the conceptions themselves, they promote or
abet misconceived practices for teaching critical thinking. Together, they have led to
the view that critical thinking is best taught by practising it. We o� er alternative
proposals for the teaching of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a subject of considerable current interest, both in terms
of theory and pedagogy. A great deal is written about critical thinking,
conferences on the subject abound, and educational initiatives aimed at
fostering critical thinking proliferate.1 It is our view that much of the
theoretical work and many of the pedagogical endeavours in this area are
misdirected because they are based on faulty conceptions of critical think-
ing. Critical thinking is frequently conceptualized in terms of skills, pro-
cesses, procedures and practice. Much of the educational literature either
refers to cognitive or thinking skills or equates critical thinking with certain
mental processes or procedural moves that can be improved through
practice. In this paper we attempt to explain the misconceptions inherent
in such ways of conceptualizing critical thinking. It is important to note
that much of the literature contains a pervasive miasma of overlapping uses
of such terms as skill, process, procedure, behaviour, mental operations,

j. curriculum studies, 1999, vol. 31, no. 3, 269± 283

S haron Bailin, a professor in the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby,
British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6, is interested in philosophical inquiries into critical
thinking, creativity and aesthetic education. Her publications include Reason and V alues:
New Essays in Philosophy of Education (Calgary, AB: Detselig, 1993), co-edited with John P.
Roland Case, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University,
conducts research in social studies and legal and global education. His most recent book is
The Canadian Anthology of Social S tudies: Issues and S trategies (Burnaby, BC: Faculty of
Education, Simon Fraser University), co-edited with Penney Clark.
Jerrold R. Coombs, a professor in the Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia,
has published extensively on ethical issues in education and the development of competence
in practical reasoning. His publications include Applied Ethics: A Reader (Oxford: Black-
well, 1993), co-edited with Earl R. Winkler.
L eRoi B. Daniels, a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Education, University of British
Columbia, is interested in philosophy of mind and legal education. He is currently editing
(with Roland Case) the `Critical Challenges Across the Curriculum’ series (Burnaby, BC:
Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University).

Journal of Curriculum S tudies ISSN 0022± 0272 print/ISSN 1366± 5839 online Ñ 1999 Taylor & Francis Ltd

etc. We thus ® nd similar kinds of error and confusion about critical
thinking under super® cially di� erent ways of talking. We have tried to
focus on plausibly distinct uses of skill, process and procedure in our
critiques. Our arguments will lay the groundwork for o� ering a new
conception based on di� erent foundational assumptions in the following
paper on this theme.

Cr i ti c a l th i n ki n g a s s ki l l

Many educators and theorists appear to view the task of teaching critical
thinking as primarily a matter of developing thinking skills. Indeed, the
discourse on thinking is su� used with skill talk. Courses and conferences
focus on the development of thinking skills and references to skills appear
in much of the literature.2 Even leading theorists in the area of critical
thinking conceptualize critical thinking largely in terms of skill. Thus, for
example, Siegel (1988: 39, 41) writes of the critical thinker as possessing à
certain character as well as certain skills’ , and makes reference to `a wide
variety of reasoning skills’ . Similarly, Paul (1984: 5) refers to critical
thinking skills and describes them as `a set of integrated macro-logical
skills’ . The Delphi Report on critical thinking (Facione 1990), which
purports to be based on expert consensus in the ® eld, views critical thinking
in terms of cognitive skills in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference,
explanation and self-regulation.

It is important to note that the term s̀kill’ can be used in a variety of
senses and that, as a consequence, some of the discussion of skills in critical
thinking is relatively unproblematic. In some instances s̀kill’ is used to
indicate that an individual is pro® cient at the task in question. It is used, in
this context, in an achievement sense. A skilled reasoner is one who is able
to reason well and to meet the relevant criteria for good reasoning. The use
of skill in this context focuses attention on students being capable of
intelligent performance as opposed to merely having propositional knowl-
edge about intelligent performance. Thus, someone who is thinking criti-
cally can do more than cite a de® nition for ad hominem. He or she will
notice inappropriate appeals to an arguer’ s character in particular argu-
mentative contexts. Clearly, being a critical thinker involves, among other
things, having a certain amount of `know-how’. Such thinkers are skilled,
then, in the sense that they must be able to ful® ll relevant standards of good
thinking. Conceptualizing critical thinking as involving skill in this
achievement sense is relatively benign.

However, some of the discussion of skills in the context of critical
thinking is more problematic. There is a strong tendency among educators
to divide educational goals or objectives into three distinct kinds: knowl-
edge, skills (i.e. abilities), and attitudes (i.e. values), and to assign critical
thinking to the category of skills.3 Conceiving of critical thinking as a skill
in this sense implies more than simply that an individual is a competent or
pro® cient thinker. It is based on a conception of skill as an identi® able
operation which is generic and discrete. There are di� culties with both of
these notions. We will begin with the problems entailed in viewing skills as

270 s. bailin ET A L .

generic, i.e. once learned, they can be applied in any ® eld of endeavour; the
problems involved in viewing skills as discrete will be dealt with later.

Skills as generic

The identi® cation of critical thinking with skill in the tripartite division of
educational goals separates critical thinking from the development of
knowledge, understanding and attitudes. Critical thinking is seen to involve
generic operations that can be learned in themselves, apart from any
particular knowledge domains, and then transferred to or applied in
di� erent contexts. Thus, for example, Worsham and Stockton (1986: 11,
12) claim that t̀here are some skills that are basic and common to most
curriculum tasks (for example, gathering information, ® nding the main
idea, determining meaning)’ . They further state that:

Most curriculum materials at the high school level require that students
analyze, synthesize, and evaluate as well as to[sic] create new `products’, such
as original oral and written pieces and artistic creations. Students are
expected to apply the appropriate thinking skills to accomplish these tasks.

In a similar vein, Beyer (1987: 163) makes reference to discrete thinking
skills and claims that:

To be pro® cient in a thinking skill or strategy means to be able to use that
operation e� ectively and e� ciently on one’s own in a variety of appropriate

The separation of knowledge and critical thinking is fraught with
di� culties however. If the claim that critical thinking skills are generic is
taken to mean that these skills can be applied in any context regardless of
background knowledge, then the claim seems clearly false. Background
knowledge in the particular area is a precondition for critical thinking to
take place. A person cannot analyse a particular chemical compound if he or
she does not know something about chemistry, and without an under-
standing of certain historical events a person will be unable to evaluate
competing theories regarding the causes of World War I.

Many theorists acknowledge the necessity of background knowledge for
critical thinking but still maintain a separation between knowledge and the
skill or skills of thinking critically. For example, Nickerson et al. (1985: 49)
contend that:

recognizing the interdependence of thinking and knowledge does not deny
the reality of the distinction. It is at least conceivable that people possessing
the same knowledge might di� er signi® cantly in how skillfully they apply
what they know.

We argue, however, that the distinction is itself untenable. Skilled
performance at thinking tasks cannot be separated from knowledge. The
kinds of acts, such as predicting and interpreting, which are put forth as
generic skills will, in fact, vary greatly depending on the context, and this
di� erence is connected with the di� erent kinds of knowledge and under-

common misconceptions of critical thinking 271

standing necessary for successful completion of the particular task. Inter-
preting a graph is a very di� erent sort of enterprise from interpreting a
play. The former involves coming to an understanding of the relationships
among the plotted entities based on understanding certain geometric
conventions; the latter involves constructing a plausible meaning for the
play based on textual evidence. Both of these di� er again from the case of
interpreting someone’s motives, which involves imputing certain beliefs or
attitudes to an individual based on reading verbal and bodily cues as well as
on past knowledge of the person. Similarly, predicting how a story will end
calls upon very di� erent understanding than does predicting the weather. It
makes little sense, then, to think in terms of generic skills, which are simply
applied or transferred to di� erent domains of knowledge.

Becoming pro® cient at critical thinking itself involves, among other
things, the acquisition of certain sorts of knowledge. For example, the
knowledge of certain critical concepts which enable one to make distinc-
tions is central to critical thinking. Understanding the di� erence between a
necessary and a su� cient condition is not just background knowledge but is
very much a part of what is involved in thinking critically.

Similarly, pro® ciency in critical thinking involves an understanding of
the various principles which govern good thinking in particular areas, and
many of these are domain speci® c, as McPeck (1981) has pointed out.
Barrow (1991: 12) makes the point in this way:

What is clear, what is contradictory, what is logical, and so forth, depends
upon the particular context. . . . To be logical in discussion about art is not a
matter of combining logical ability with information about art. It is a matter
of understanding the logic of art, of being on the inside of aesthetic concepts
and aesthetic theory. The capacity to be critical about art is inextricably
intertwined with understanding aesthetic discourse.

Facione (1990: 10) sums up well this general point:

This domain-speci® c knowledge includes understanding methodological
principles and competence to engage in norm-regulated practices that are
at the core of reasonable judgements in those speci® c contexts. . . . Too much
of value is lost if CT [critical thinking] is conceived of simply as a list of
logical operations and domain-speci® c knowledge is conceived of simply as
an aggregation of information.

An additional di� culty with the identi® cation of critical thinking solely
with skills to the exclusion of knowledge and attitudes is that it fails to
recognize the central role played by attitudes in thinking critically. Critical
thinking involves more than the ability to engage in good thinking. It also
involves the willingness or disposition to do so. Siegel (1988) refers to this
aspect of critical thinking as the critical spirit and sees it as of equal
importance to the reason-assessment component. Ennis (1987) includes a
list of dispositions in his conception of critical thinking, and dispositions,
and values and traits of character are central to Paul’ s (1982) notion of a
s̀trong sense’ of critical thinking.

272 s. bailin ET A L .

Skills as discrete

Another major di� culty with the equation of critical thinking with skill is
that it assumes the existence of certain discrete processes, procedures or
operations. It is assumed that acquiring a skill involves becoming pro® cient
at these processes. Thus, Chuska (1986: 25) distinguishes between the
`ways of thinking (the processes involved)’ and tÌ€hinking skills (the pro® –
ciency a person demonstrates in using the processes)’. In some cases these
processes are thought to involve certain mental processes or operations, and
in others these processes are conceived of in terms of procedures or steps.
The di� culties with both these conceptualizations are dealt with below.

Cr i ti c a l th i n ki n g a s m e n ta l p r o c e s s e s

It is a common assumption in discourse about critical thinking that being
good at critical thinking is basically a matter of being pro® cient at certain
mental processes.4 These processes are generally thought to include such
things as classifying, inferring, observing, evaluating, synthesizing and
hypothesizing. Kirby and Kuykendall (1991: 7, 11), for example, hold
that t̀hinking is a holistic process in which di� erent mental operations
work in concert’ and allude to ìntellectual skills training’ . It is our view
that a purely `processes’ conception of critical thinking is logically mis-
leading and pedagogically mischievous.5

In medicine, talking about processes as outcomes makes some sense. An
obstetrician may give a newborn infant an appropriately sound smack to
start up certain vital processes. May we not suggest that teachers should
seek to do something analogous? If we do, we are presumably not suggest-
ing that they should seek the occurrence of physical processes such as
synapse-® ring in the brain, but that they should seek the occurrence of such
mental processes as analysing or translating. Should they not, then, seek to
invoke mental processes?

Talk about mental processes has a logic very di� erent from the logic of
talk about physical processes. Physical processes, such as baking or
synapse-® ring, can, at least in principle, be observed and identi® ed
independently of any product they may have. Mental processes can be
identi® ed only via their products; observing them directly is a logical
impossibility. For example, we suppose that a translating `process’ has
occurred in some person only because the person has succeeded in produ-
cing a translation.

Descriptions of translating and classifying `behaviours’ are not descrip-
tions of behaviours at all, but descriptions of upshots or accomplishments
such as converting poetry to prose. When someone succeeds in such a
conversion there is no doubt that something must have gone on ìn’ that
person which enabled him or her to succeed. To identify this s̀omething’ as
a particular mental process is to assume that the same sort of thing goes on
within a person in every case in which he or she translates something.
There is no reason to suppose this is the case. The so-called `processes’ are
hypothesized, and then rei® ed after the fact of these upshots.

common misconceptions of critical thinking 273

Mental processes are di� erentiated from one another not by observing
features of the processes, but by distinguishing among kinds of upshots or
accomplishments. The number of di� erent kinds of processes we identify
depends upon how we decide to di� erentiate upshots. For some purposes
we may wish to lump them all together. For instance, we may lump
together all of the upshots that represent successful application of conven-
tional meaning rules and standards, and then we might talk of t̀he process’
of translation that all have in common. We may, on the other hand, want to
subdivide student successes on the basis of the di� erent kinds of meaning
conventions they ful® l. In either case, we will be less inclined to reify and
confound categories if we talk about enabling students to ful® l the
conventions and standards rather than about their exercising mysterious
processes presumed to lie behind such accomplishments. No useful ped-
agogical aim is served by postulating such processes.

Regardless of the conceptual hazards, people interested in critical
thinking, and in education in general, are prone to talk about processesÐ
the thinking process, the reading process, the creative process. What makes
this way of characterizing teaching and learning so attractive? In part, the
attraction may arise from the ambiguity of the term `process’. In part, it
may also occur because it seems to o� er a promising answer to the question,
`Are critical thinking abilities transferable?’

Broadly speaking, a process may be any course of events that has an
upshot or a result of some sort. However, there are at least three distinct
ways that courses of events relate to their upshots. In the ® rst instance, they
may relate as that course of events people now call `natural selection’ relates
to its upshot, the evolution of a species. In the second, they may relate as
running a race relates to ® nishing the race. In the third, they may relate as
facing an object relates to noticing it. We may characterize these, for the
sake of convenience, as: (1) process-product, (2) task-achievement, and (3)
orient-reception relations. Process-product pairs are used to pick out
situations in which a series of changes or a particular relation produces
an identi® able upshot. Task-achievement pairs are used to talk about what
people do to bring about upshots. Tasks di� er from other `processes’ in that
tasks are things people do on purpose in an e� ort to succeed at something.
There are doubtless thousands of task words in most natural languages.
Words like l̀ook’, s̀earch’ , r̀ace’ and t̀each’ can all be used as task words.
Their use in this way re¯ ects the fact that many things people seek to
accomplish are di� cult to bring o� . They can try and fail.

Ambiguity in the term `process’ lends a spurious sort of plausibility to
the processes conception of critical thinking because it makes it plausible to
suppose that all upshots of human activity have the same relation to the
activity as products of combustion have to the process of combustion.
Because processes are routinely named after their products, it is natural to
suppose that achievements and receptions must also have corresponding
processes. The result, of course, is unwarranted rei® cationÐ reading back
from outcomes to mysterious antecedent processes.

The process conception is also bolstered by the fact that the same
happening may be spoken of as both a process and a task. When one bakes a
loaf of bread the changes in the loaf may be seen either as a natural function

274 s. bailin ET A L .

of heating and of the chemistry of its constituents, or as what the cook
doesÐ heating the oven to the proper temperature and so on. The same
happenings are, thus, characterized di� erently. Baking, the chemical pro-
cess, is a causal occurrence; baking, the task, is a procedure (or an art)
intended to bring about the chemical process in proper degree, so that the
result is not pasty, or charred, or leaden. Because such words as `baking’
may be ambiguous, it is easy to neglect the di� erence between the process
and the task.

Such reception verbs, as s̀ee’, `notice’ and r̀ealize’ refer to upshots of a
special kind. First, they involve either (or both) our literal perception
apparatuses (eyes, ears, etc.) or our mental abilities. Secondly, although
there are tasks we can carry out to position ourselves to see (e.g. sit where
we can watch the horizon) or prepare ourselves conceptually (e.g. acquire
the concepts of truth and validity), these tasks cannot guarantee that we will
have the desired upshot. As White (1967: 69) puts it:

We can ask someone how he [sic] `would’ discover or cure, but not how he
`would’ notice, although it is as legitimate to ask how he `did’ notice as it is to
ask how he `did’ discover or cure. For the former `how’ question asks for the
method, but the latter for the opportunity. Although appropriate schooling
and practice can put us in a condition to notice what we used to miss, people
cannot be taught nor can they learn how to notice, as they can be taught or
can learn how to detect. Noticing, unlike solving, is not the exercise of a skill.

For those interested in teaching students to become better at critical
thinking, the moral is clear. We cannot teach students the process of
noticing fallacies, for we have no grounds for believing there is such a
process. The most we can do is orient them, and this, it seems, we do in at
least three ways.

� We teach the person certain conceptsÐ for instance, the concept of
a valid argument. This enables them to notice fallacies they would
otherwise have overlookedÐ but does not, of course, guarantee
they will notice them.

� We motivate the person to care that arguments are valid and to be
on the lookout for invalid arguments.

� We teach procedures that enable the person to orient himself or
herself where certain kinds of reception are sought.

The second reason why people become advocates of critical thinking
processes is that they want schools to provide curricula such that students
learn to do certain things across the curriculumÐ and into their non-school
livesÐ abstract, analyse, classify, evaluate, sequence, synthesize, translate,
etc. These `processes’ are believed to be common to all critical thinking
situations and to a range of activities beyond. To educators this means that
in teaching them they can economize on instruction because there will be
transfer of training. Someone who learns the forehand smash in tennis is
likely to learn the forehand smash in squash with less di� culty than a
person novice to both. Are we then to suggest that someone who learns, for
example, to abstract in the writing of a pre cis will be able, because of that
prior learning, to abstract in depicting a house, or that one who is able to

common misconceptions of critical thinking 275

evaluate cars will thereby be able to evaluate hypotheses? What else can we
make of talk of processes as general abilities? Critical thinking situations
may well have common features, but speaking of processes is of no value; it
is, indeed, either otiose or misleading, and we almost certainly risk losing
more than we gain. We risk falling into a monochromatic and wholly
misleading view of the teaching of critical thinking.

Cr i ti c a l th i n ki n g a s p r o c e d u r e s

Another common misconception of critical thinking sees it as basically a
matter of following a general procedure, described usually in terms of a set
of steps, stages or phases. We contend that developing students’ compe-
tence in thinking is not, at heart, dependent on teaching them steps or
procedures to follow. We begin by clarifying what we believe is implied by
those who characterize critical thinking as following step-by-step pro-
cedures. Next, we compare this view with an account of thinking as the
exercise of judgement.

Thinking as procedure

Although there is no consensus about the general procedures that constitute
thinking, the three most frequently discussed are inquiry (i.e. t̀he scienti® c
method’), problem solving, and decision making (Wright 1993). Some
writers refer to critical thinking and creative thinking as separate pro-
cedures (Marzano et al. 1988: 32, Overgaard 1989: 9). By some accounts,
there are as many as eight general thinking procedures: concept formation,
principle formation, comprehension, problem solving, decision making,
research, composition, and oral discourse (Marzano et al. 1988: 32± 33).
Each of these is distinguished by the type of conclusion or result produced
(e.g. clari® cation of a concept, a decision about what course of action to
take). Proponents of thinking as procedure, by de® nition, believe that
procedures are at the heart of promoting thinking.

An important variable in this view of thinking is the formality of the
sequence of steps involved in these general procedures. There is a range of
opinion on this matter, spanning what we will call the algorithmic and the
heuristic views of thinking as procedure. According to Nickerson et al.
(1985: 74), algorithms and heuristics are two types of procedures: an
algorithm is a step-by-step prescription that is guaranteed to accomplish
a particular goal; an heuristic is a procedure that is merely reasonably likely
to yield a solution. Proponents of an algorithmic view of thinking as
procedure hold that: (1) there is a manageable number of highly reliable
procedures that, taken as a whole, can address the range of situations that
students need to resolve, (2) the steps in these procedures form a ® xed
order, and (3) mastery of these steps is the central challenge in learning to
think. Supporters of the heuristic view hold a less stringent set of assump-
tions: (1) there is a potentially large number of procedures helpful across
the range of situations that students need to resolve, (2) the order of the

276 s. bailin ET A L .

steps in these is not ® xed, and (3) mastery of these steps is a pre-eminent,
but not necessarily the only, challenge in learning to think.

Although it is di� cult to ® nd much support for the algorithmic view of
critical thinking, many academics, particularly psychologists, appear to
accept the heuristic view. Thus, after reviewing a representative range of
programmes to promote thinking, Glaser (1984: 96) notes that `most of
these programs place emphasis on the teaching of general processes, general
heuristics and rules for reasoning and problem solving, that might be
acquired as transferable habits of thinking’ . Marzano et al. (1988: 34)
suggest that the procedures should not be taught as `prescribed procedures’
but rather as r̀epertoires or arrays of alternatives’ that are s̀emi-ordered’ or
are `working hypotheses about the best way to accomplish a goal, general
procedures to be used ¯ exibly by teachers and adapted by students’ . For
others, however, the sequence of steps to be followed is more signi® cant
(e.g. Beach 1987: 146± 147).

It is intuitively appealing to describe critical thinking in terms of how
an individual is to go about it. The procedure approach, by reducing
critical thinking to steps, seeks to provide operational or task descriptions
of the building blocks of such thinking. Consider the following exampleÐ
the `Decide Model’ by E. Daniel Eckberg.6 This conception holds or
assumes that critical thinking comprises a set of steps characterized as

D. De® ne the dilemma
What’s the problem?
Why does it concern me?
What’s the basic issue?

E. Examine electives
What are all sorts of possible ways of solving the problem?
What choices do we have?
What are our alternative courses of action?
What hypothesis can we make?

C. Consider consequences
What happens if we try each choice?
If we do this, then what?
How will things change if I choose this one?
What data can I collect and consider in considering these con-

I. Investigate importance
What principles are important to me here?
What things do I most value?
How will these values in¯ uence my choice?
What am I assuming to be true?
What are my preferences and biases?

D. Decide direction
In the light of the data, what’ s my choice?
Which choice should now be chosen?
Which hypothesis seems to be the best?
Based on the evidence, what course of action should I take?

common misconceptions of critical thinking 277

E. Evaluate ends
How can I test my hypothesis?
Was my course of action correct?
What are the consequences of my choice?
Has a tentative hypothesis been proven or disproved?
What are my conclusions?

As one can see, the model attempts to characterize critical thinking as a set
of procedures to be carried out. None of the steps directly raises the
underlying normative questions. Even in asking, `Was my course of action
correct?’, the schema refers to what has been completedÐ a re¯ ection back.
Thus, the fundamentally normative and ongoing nature of critical thinking
is ignored or masked. Critical thinking is not simply a retrospective

It might be suggested that a more appropriate description of the `decide
direction’ step is `make an informed, fair-minded decision’ . We agree, but
this no longer describes a procedure to be performed, rather it identi® es
norms to be ful® lled. As such, it is not characteristic of the procedure view.
Although some educators may use the term s̀tep’ to refer to achievement of
standards, the focus is overwhelmingly on strategies and heuristics. We do
not wish to quibble over conceptual territory; rather we draw attention to
the dominant (possibly, paradigmatic) use of the term s̀tep’ so as to expose
the inadequacies of this view of critical thinking as following general

Concerns with t̀hinking as general procedures’

Although we believe that heuristics serve a useful role in learning to think
critically, we do not regard them as the central feature of good thinking:
there are two basic reasons why the general procedures view is an
inadequate way of conceiving of critical thinking. We believe it misrepre-
sents the major obstacle to good thinking, and grossly understates the
signi® cance of contextual factors in deciding how to proceed in any
particular case of critical thinking

On the general procedures view, the performance of certain tasks is seen
to be a highly reliable means of achieving the desired results of thinking.
The educational challenge is, therefore, to equip students with repertoires
of procedures they can employ across the range of thinking situations. In
our view, the mere performance of certain procedures identi® ed in
descriptive terms is insu� cient to ensure that what has happened counts
as critical thinking.

The performance of tasks such as thinking of reasons for and against a
position, or of brainstorming alternatives, does not guarantee that an
individual is thinking critically. The pro and con reasons that the individual
comes up with may address only the most trivial aspects of the issue; so,
too, the brainstorming of alternatives may miss the most sensible alter-
natives. Learning to engage in such activities has little educational merit
unless these things are done in such a way as to ful® l relevant standards of

278 s. bailin ET A L .

adequacy. Students have, after all, performed these sorts of tasks for
much of their lives. The educational goal must be to teach them to
do such tasks well by increasing their capacity and inclination to
make judgements by reference to criteria and standards that distinguish
thoughtful evaluations from sloppy ones, fruitful classi® cation schemes
from trivial ones, and so on. A general procedures approach that does
not teach standards of good thinking is unlikely to sharpen students’
critical judgement. It is for this reason we have suggested that critical
thinking should be characterized not in terms of procedures to be carried
out, but in terms of the standards a performance must ful® l to count as

Critical thinking is a polymorphous or multi-form enterprise; there
are numerous activities that may be helpful in solving a problem or
reaching a decision. What steps are appropriate is determined both by
the nature of the problem and its context. They are context-bound. For
example, in deciding whether any particular government should
support international military intervention in `civil’ wars, it is hard to
imagine how one set of steps, or any limited set of procedures, could
be appropriate for all such circumstances. Nor could the same sequence
of problem-solving steps usefully be applied both to ® xing a failing
relationship and to ® xing a civil war. Identifying both these situations
as `problems’ masks the very di� erent factors that need to be considered
in deciding what should be done in each case.7 Given the diversity
of problems and problem contexts, we believe that any account of
the steps involved in problem solving or decision making will either be
so vague as to be largely unhelpful, or they will be so speci® c that they
will have little generalizability beyond a speci® c class of problems or

To a considerable extent, what we should do in solving a problem is
determined by the standards that must be met for the solution in the
particular case to be successful. In the case of a failing relationship, it may
be lack of honesty with oneself that is the problem. In deciding whether a
government should participate in an international intervention may involve
honesty, but it often involves considering the e� ect on the lives of many
innocentsÐ and very large economic e� ects. Following the decision-making
model listed above may simply be an occasion to rationalize the self-
deception that gave rise to the personal problem in the ® rst placeÐ or the
international problem in the ® rst place. Nurturing open-mindedness may
be the only s̀tep’ needed to repair this situation

We are not claiming that teaching about general procedures is a com-
pletely inappropriate way to promote critical thinking. Rather, we empha-
size that the e� ectiveness of any procedure depends on its e� cacy in
helping students meet the relevant standards for good thinking: there are
no inherent or highly reliable connections between learning to think well
and performing particular operations. Put another way, what drives
increased competence in thinking is greater mastery of the standards for
judging an appropriate tack to take in a particular context, not learning pre-
programmed, supposedly generalizable, procedures.

common misconceptions of critical thinking 279

Cr i ti c a l th i n ki n g a n d th e p e d a g o g y o f p r a c ti c e

We have reviewed three conceptions of critical thinking: skills, processes,
and procedures. All three have been used to promote the idea that
competence in thinking critically is gained primarily through practice.
Thus, although we will focus in this section on the skills-conception as a
source of the pedagogy of practice, we could just as well focus on either the
process or the procedures view. Nickerson et al. (1985) discuss learning
thinking skills as analogous to two ways of learning physical skillsÐ one
when a person practises a particular skill to strengthen it; the other where,
by appropriately directing intellectual energy, teachers replace the novice’ s
ine� cient movements with more e� cient ones. Practice is seen as exercis-
ing the skills of critical thinking so that improvement will take place.
Students may, for example, be given frequent opportunities to make
comparisons in a variety of domains so that the s̀kill of comparing’ will
be exercised, and this aspect of critical thinking improved. We contend,
however, that critical thinking is not promoted simply through the repeti-
tion of s̀kills’ of thinking, but rather by developing the relevant knowledge,
commitments and strategies and, above all, by coming to understand what
criteria and standards are relevant. Repetition does indeed have some role
to play, but only if it takes place in the context of the development of such
knowledge, criteria, commitments and strategies.

The main assumption underpinning the practice view is that critical
thinking consists of a variety of discrete skills that can be improved through
repetition. On this view critical thinking skills are analogous to skills in an
athletic endeavour such as soccer, where it is possible to practise kicking,
heading the ball, passing, etc., and to develop skill at each of these
constituent activities independently of ever playing a football game. One
repeats the skill until it has become routinized and one no longer needs to
apply conscious attention to its execution.

However, this is not an appropriate model for what is involved in
becoming better at critical thinking. Unlike athletic skill, skill in critical
thinking cannot be separated from understanding the nature and purpose of
the task one is attempting to accomplish.8 Becoming better at comparing,
for example, involves learning to make comparisons according to relevant
criteria, making comparisons which are appropriate to the particular
circumstances, comparing with a view to the reason the comparison is
being made, and so on.

We argued earlier that critical thinking cannot be characterized in terms
of speci® c mental processes, and that there are no good grounds for
supposing that terms like comparing, classifying and inferring denote
generic mental processes which one can improve through repetition.
Here, we emphasize that all aspects of critical thinking centrally involve
judgement, and judgement cannot be made routine. ScheÆ’ er (1965: 103)
makes this point with reference to chess:

critical skills call for strategic judgement and cannot be rendered automatic.
To construe the learning of chess as a matter of drill would thus be quite
wrong-headed in suggesting that the same game be played over and over

280 s. bailin ET A L .

again, or intimating that going through the motions of playing repeatedly
somehow improves one’s game. What is rather supposed, at least in the case
of chess, is that improvement comes about through development of strategic
judgement, which requires that such judgement be allowed opportunity to
guide choices in a wide variety of games, with maximal opportunity for
evaluating relevant outcomes and re¯ ecting upon alternative principles and
strategy in the light of such evaluation.

An examination of those areas where practice is helpfulÐ for example
artistic performanceÐ makes evident that useful practice involves far more
than mere repetition. Practising the piano is not simply a matter of
continually repeating a piece in the same manner, but rather of being
alert to and attempting to correct errors and continually striving for
improvement according to the standards of quality performance. Dewey
(1964: 201) makes the point that simply sawing a bow across violin strings
will not make a violinist.

It is a certain quality of practice, not mere practice, which produces the
expert and the artist. Unless the practice is based upon rational principles,
upon insights into facts and their meaning, èxperience’ simply ® xes incorrect
acts into wrong habits.

Howard (1982: 161, 162) also maintains that practice is not mere repetition,
but claims that it is, rather, repetition which is g̀uided by speci® c aims
such as solving various kinds of problems’ or ìmproving acquired skills’ ,
and ìn accord with some . . . criteria of performance’ which enable one to
judge the level of mastery of the activity. Thus, he states:

Rather than mechanically duplicating a passage, one strives for particular
goals, say, of ¯ uency, contrast, or balance. Successive repeats re¯ ect a drive
toward such goals rather than passive absorption of a sequence of motor acts.

The question arises at this point as to how critical thinking can best be
developed and what role practice plays in this development. We have
argued that what characterizes thinking which is critical is the quality of the
reasoning. Thus, in order to become a (more) critical thinker one must
understand what constitutes quality reasoning, and have the commitments
relevant to employing and seeking quality reasoning. The knowledge
necessary for such understanding includes background knowledge relevant
to the context in question, knowledge of the principles and standards of
argumentation and inquiry, both in general and in specialized areas,
knowledge of critical concepts, and knowledge of relevant strategies and
heuristics. The kinds of habits of mind, commitments or sensitivities
necessary for being a critical thinker include such things as open-mind-
edness, fair-mindedness, the desire for truth, an inquiring attitude and a
respect for high-quality products and performances. Thus, fostering criti-
cal thinking would involve the development of such knowledge and

A variety of means may be employed to promote such development,
including direct instruction, teacher modelling, creation of an educational
environment where critical inquiry is valued and nurtured, and provision
for students of frequent opportunities to think critically about meaningful

common misconceptions of critical thinking 281

challenges with appropriate feedback. Practice may also have a role to play,
but it must be understood that it is not practice in the sense of a simple
repetition of a skill, process or procedure. Rather such practice presupposes
the kind of knowledge outlined above, and involves the development of
critical judgement through applying this knowledge in a variety of contexts.
It also involves attempts on the part of the learner to improve according to
speci® c criteria of performance, and frequent feedback and evaluation with
respect to the quality of thinking demonstrated.

N o te s

1. See, for example, Presseisen (1986).
2. Some examples are Worsham and Stockton (1986) and Beyer (1991).
3. One fairly recent example of the use of this tripartite division of goals is to be found in

British Columbia Ministry of Education (1991a, b).
4. It is, of course, a category mistake to talk about `doing’ processes; processes happen;

people do not do them.
5. One which comes close to this is found in a document produced by a Canadian Ministry

of Education (British Columbia Ministry of Education 1991b: 15) which refers to
t̀hirteen thinking operations: observation, comparing, classifying, making hypotheses,
imagining . . . ’ .

6. The `Decide Model’ is used in an introductory text on economic reasoning (described in
Mackey 1977: 410).

7. According to Mackey (1977: 408) problem solving is t̀he application of an organized
method of reasoning to a di� cult, perplexing or bewildering situation’.

8. This is not to deny that many activities, such as football, deeply involveÐ in addition to
skillsÐ critical thinking.

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